Time to Heal the Fractures: Search for New Amherst School Superintendent Postponed Until Fall

The Amherst-Pelham Regional and Union 26 School Committees voted last night to formally stop a superintendent search launched this winter, after a consultant failed to heed warnings that its job applications didn’t comply with Massachusetts law.

The search will begin anew in the fall with the same consultants, Ray & Associates of Cedar Rapids, IA., if  the firm can satisfactorily explain how it would avoid making the same mistake again. Eric Nakajima, chairman of the regional committee, said it will offer to extend a contract expiring in June with Interim Superintendent Michael Morris.

It was clear that Nakajima and others believe there are other reasons to delay the search besides the problem encountered, including the likelihood of a bigger applicant pool in the fall, and time to resolve conflicts.  Nakajima said the district has a been viewed as so chaotic that spending a few more months before initiating the search “wasn’t the world’s worst thing.”

The district has a $17,000 contract with Ray & Associates, and has also spent about $15,000 on job advertisements.

Nakajima, who is running for re-election to a seat won about six months ago, spoke about the need for a community-wide strategic planning process, to help bring warring factions together. “Given the multiple fractures – it’s a means of starting to heal and re-knit a lot of those fractures,” he said.

Nakajima did not go into details. However, conflict on the regional committee ran high last summer, when former Superintendent Maria Geryk resigned with a $309,000 buyout package, claiming she was unfairly labeled racist following a conflict with a Pelham mother, in which the mother was barred from school grounds. Amherst residents have also been deeply divided over the district’s proposal for a $67 million elementary school building and consolidation plan, which will be voted on in a townwide referendum next Tuesday, March 28, after twice failing to win a 2/3 majority at Amherst Town Meeting.

Last night, Human Resources Director Kathryn Mazur said she contacted Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents Executive Director Thomas Scott, and was told there was no advantage to conducting a search for a permanent superintendent at this time of year. Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, also said it could be too late to get top candidates, Mazur said.

The school committees considered several different scenarios, which included trying to restart a search with Ray & Associates beginning on March 31; soliciting new firms and starting a fresh search now; and delaying the search, with or without Ray & Associates.

Ray & Associates will be expected to provide a “root cause” and “corrective action” for its error. If the information presented proves unsatisfactory, according to the motion by member Audra Goscenski, the district will hire a new search consultant.

Although the vote to postpone was unanimous, committee member Trevor Baptiste had argued for forging ahead with the search this spring. “We have an interest in seeing this thing through,” he said. “Admittedly, this a speed bump, but I don’t think we should take our eyes off the goal.”

Nakajima stressed that the objective is “finding an outstanding educational leader,” and the search’s timing could have an impact.

Questions arose about how the district’s central office, now led by Morris, will fare if hiring a permanent superintendent is further delayed. Morris announced a few weeks ago he would not be vying for the spot. Last night, Morris said he would withdraw a recent advertisement for an assistant superintendent of diversity, equity and human resources.

Morris, like Nakajima, emphasized that the district needs a “community engagement process that yields strategic planning,” with the goal of all voices being heard. “I don’t think this can wait,” Morris said, adding that it would be helpful to have that process complete before a new superintendent is hired.

Ordonez, Mazur and Nakajima said that Ray & Associates was extremely apologetic about
the error, and offered to redo the search now with no additional contract fee.

“Everything they said talked about their willingness to make good on the contract,” Nakajima said, adding that it was up to the school committees to decide if they still had confidence in Ray & Associates.

Committee member Vira Douangmany Cage urged the district to engage in a review of its own procedures, to help prevent such a thing from happening again.

Baptiste said “we shouldn’t drop the ball again,” in coordinating with a consultant.  Nakajima countered that he responded to the situation immediately after discovering it. “I don’t think I’ve dropped the ball,” he said.

In the Pelham situation roughly a year ago, a mother named Aisha Hiza said her dark-skinned child was the victim of racially-motivated bullying. Following interactions between Hiza and school officials, Geryk ordered Hiza to stay off school grounds. Hiza has said the ban prevented her from advocating for her child.

The district’s building plan would lead to demolition of the K-6 Wildwood and Fort River elementary schools, and a new, grade 2-6 building on the Wildwood site. The preK-6 Crocker Farm in South Amherst would become a town-wide building for preschool and grades K-1. The state would reimburse Amherst for about half the $67 million capital cost.




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